In November 2012, Salvador Alvarenga went fishing off the coast of Mexico. Two days later, a storm hit and he made a desperate SOS. It was the last anyone heard from him – for 438 days. This is his story.
As they motored across the lagoon in the Marshall Islands, deep in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the policemen stared at the specimen laid out on the deck before them. There was no hiding the fact that this man had been at sea for a considerable time. His hair was matted upwards like a shrub. His beard curled out in wild disarray. His ankles were swollen, his wrists tiny; he could barely walk. He refused to make eye contact and often hid his face.
Salvador Alvarenga, a 36-year-old fisherman from El Salvador, had left the coast of Mexico in a small boat with a young crewmate 14 months earlier. Now he was being taken to Ebon Atoll, the southernmost tip of the Marshall Islands, and the closest town to where he had washed ashore. He was 6,700 miles from the place he had set out from. He had drifted for 438 days.
Floating across the Pacific Ocean, watching the moon’s light ebb and flow for over a year, Alvarenga had battled loneliness, depression and bouts of suicidal thinking. But surviving in a vibrant world of wild animals, vivid hallucinations and extreme solitude did little to prepare him for the fact that he was about to become an international celebrity and an object of curiosity.
Days later, Alvarenga faced the world’s press. Dressed in a baggy brown sweatshirt that disguised his reedy torso, he disembarked from a police boat slowly but unaided. Expecting a gaunt and bedridden victim, a ripple of disbelief went through the crowd. Alvarenga cracked a quick smile and waved to the cameras. Several observers noted a similarity to the Tom Hanks character in the movie Cast Away. The photo of the bearded fisherman shuffling ashore went viral. Briefly, Alvarenga became a household name.
Who survives 14 months at sea? Only a Hollywood screenwriter could write a tale in which such a journey ends happily. I was sceptical, but as a Guardian reporter in the region, I began to investigate. It turned out there were dozens of witnesses who had seen Alvarenga leave shore, who had heard his SOS. When he washed ashore (in the same boat that he had left Mexico on), thousands of miles away, he was steadfast in his rejection of interviews – even posting a note on his hospital door begging the press to disappear.
Later, I would sit with Alvarenga for many hours, back at his home in El Salvador, as he described in detail the brutal realities of living at sea for more than a year. Over the course of more than 40 interviews, he described his extraordinary survival at sea. This is his story.
On 18 November 2012, a day after being ambushed at sea by a massive storm, Alvarenga was trying to ignore the growing pond of seawater sloshing at his feet. An inexperienced navigator might have panicked, started baling and been distracted from his primary task: aligning the boat with the waves. He was a veteran captain and knew that he needed to regain the initiative. Together with his inexperienced crewmate, Ezequiel Córdoba, he was 50 miles out at sea, slowly negotiating a route back to shore.
The spray and crashing waves dumped hundreds of gallons of seawater into the boat, threatening to sink or flip them. While Alvarenga steered, Córdoba was frantically tossing water back into the ocean, pausing only momentarily to allow his shoulder muscles to recover.
Alvarenga’s boat, at 25 feet, was as long as two pick-up trucks and as wide as one. With no raised structure, no glass and no running lights, it was virtually invisible at sea. On the deck, a fibreglass crate the size of a refrigerator was full of fresh fish: tuna, mahimahi and sharks, their catch after a two-day trip. If they could bring it ashore, they would have enough money to survive for a week.
The boat was loaded with equipment, including 70 gallons of gasoline, 16 gallons of water, 23kg (50lb) of sardines for bait, 700 hooks, miles of line, a harpoon, three knives, three buckets for baling, a mobile phone (in a plastic bag to keep it dry), a GPS tracking device (not waterproof), a two-way radio (battery half-charged), several wrenches for the motor and 91kg (200lb) of ice.
Alvarenga had prepared the boat with Ray Perez, his usual mate and a loyal companion. But at the last minute, Perez couldn’t join him. Alvarenga, keen to get out to sea, arranged to go with Córdoba instead, a 22-year-old with the nickname Piñata who lived at the far end of the lagoon, where he was best known as a defensive star on the village soccer team. Alvarenga and Córdoba had never spoken before, much less worked together.
Alvarenga tensely negotiated their slow advance toward the coast, manoeuvring among the waves like a surfer trying to glide and slice his way through. As the weather worsened, Córdoba’s resolve disintegrated. At times he refused to bale and instead held the rail with both hands, vomiting and crying. He had signed up to make $50. He was capable of working 12 hours straight without complaining and was athletic and strong. But this crashing, soaking journey back to shore? He was sure their tiny craft would shatter and sharks would devour them. He began to scream.
Alvarenga remained sitting, gripping the tiller tightly, determined to navigate a storm now so strong that harbourmasters along the coast had barred fishing boats from heading out to sea. Finally he noticed a change in the visibility, the cloud cover was lifting: he could see miles across the water. Around 9am, Alvarenga spotted the rise of a mountain on the horizon. They were approximately two hours from land when the motor started coughing and spluttering. He pulled out his radio and called his boss. “Willy! Willy! Willy! The motor is ruined!”
“Calm down, man, give me your coordinates,” Willy responded, from the beachside docks in Costa Azul.
“We have no GPS, it’s not functioning.”
“Lay an anchor,” Willy ordered.
“We have no anchor,” Alvarenga said. He had noticed it was missing before setting off, but didn’t think he needed it on a deep-sea mission.
“OK, we are coming to get you,” Willy responded.
“Come now, I am really getting fucked out here,” Alvarenga shouted. These were his final words to shore.
As the waves thumped the boat, Alvarenga and Córdoba began working as a team. With the morning sun, they could see the waves approaching, rising high above them and then splitting open. Each man would brace and lean against a side of the open-hulled boat to counteract the roll.
But the waves were unpredictable, slapping each other in midair, joining forces to create swells that raised the men to a brief peak where they could get a third-storey view, then, with the sensation of a falling elevator, instantly drop them. Their beach sandals provided no traction on the deck.
Alvarenga realised their catch – nearly 500kg (1,100lb) of fresh fish – was making the boat top heavy and unstable. With no time to consult his boss, Alvarenga went with his gut: they would dump all the fish. One by one they hauled them out of the cooler, swinging the carcasses into the ocean. Falling overboard was now more dangerous than ever: the bloody fish were sure to attract sharks.
Furious, he picked up a heavy club normally used to kill fish
and began to bash the broken engine
Next they tossed the ice and extra gasoline. Alvarenga strung 50 buoys from the boat as a makeshift “sea anchor” that floated on the surface, providing drag and stability. But at around 10am the radio died. It was before noon on day one of a storm that Alvarenga knew was likely to last five days. Losing the GPS had been an inconvenience. The failed motor was a disaster. Now, without radio contact, they were on their own.
The storm roiled the men all afternoon as they fought to bale water out of the boat. The same muscles, the same repetitive motion, hour after hour, had allowed them to dump perhaps half the water. They were both ready to faint with exhaustion, but Alvarenga was also furious. He picked up a heavy club normally used to kill fish and began to bash the broken engine. Then he grabbed the radio and GPS unit and angrily threw the machines into the water.
The sun sank and the storm churned as Córdoba and Alvarenga succumbed to the cold. They turned the refrigerator-sized icebox upside down and huddled inside. Soaking wet and barely able to clench their cold hands into fists, they hugged and wrapped their legs around each other. But as the incoming water sank the boat ever lower, the men took turns leaving the icebox to bale for frantic 10- or 15-minute stints. Progress was slow but the pond at their feet gradually grew smaller.
Darkness shrank their world, as a gale-force wind ripped offshore and drove the men farther out to sea. Were they now back to where they had been fishing a day earlier? Were they heading north towards Acapulco, or south towards Panama? With only the stars as guides, they had lost their usual means of calculating distance.
Without bait or fish hooks, Alvarenga invented a daring strategy to catch fish. He kneeled alongside the edge of the boat, his eyes scanning for sharks, and shoved his arms into the water up to his shoulders. With his chest tightly pressed to the side of the boat, he kept his hands steady, a few inches apart. When a fish swam between his hands, he smashed them shut, digging his fingernails into the rough scales. Many escaped but soon Alvarenga mastered the tactic and he began to grab the fish and toss them into the boat while trying to avoid their teeth. With the fishing knife, Córdoba expertly cleaned and sliced the flesh into finger-sized strips that were left to dry in the sun. They ate fish after fish. Alvarenga stuffed raw meat and dried meat into his mouth, hardly noticing or caring about the difference. When they got lucky, they were able to catch turtles and the occasional flying fish that landed inside their boat.
Within days, Alvarenga began to drink his urine and encouraged Córdoba to follow suit. It was salty but not revolting as he drank, urinated, drank again, peed again, in a cycle that felt as if it was providing at least minimal hydration; in fact, it was exacerbating their dehydration. Alvarenga had long ago learned the dangers of drinking seawater. Despite their longing for liquid, they resisted swallowing even a cupful of the endless saltwater that surrounded them.
“I was so hungry that I was eating my own fingernails, swallowing all the little pieces,” Alvarenga later told me. He began to grab jellyfish from the water, scooping them up in his hands and swallowing them whole. “It burned the top part of my throat, but wasn’t so bad.”
After roughly 14 days at sea, Alvarenga was resting inside the icebox when he heard a sound: splat, splat, splat. The rhythm of raindrops on the roof was unmistakable. “Piñata! Piñata! Piñata,” Alvarenga screamed as he slipped out. His crewmate awoke and joined him. Rushing across the deck, the two men deployed a rainwater collection system that Alvarenga had been designing and imagining for a week. Córdoba scrubbed a grey five-gallon bucket clean and positioned its mouth skyward.
Dark clouds stalked overhead, and after days of drinking urine and turtle blood, and nearly dying of thirst, a storm finally bore down on the men. They opened their mouths to the falling rain, stripped off their clothes and showered in a glorious deluge of fresh water. Within an hour, the bucket had an inch, then two inches of water. The men laughed and drank every couple of minutes. After their initial attack on the water supplies, however, they vowed to maintain strict rations.
After weeks at sea, Alvarenga and Córdoba became astute scavengers and learned to distinguish the varieties of plastic that bob across the ocean. They grabbed and stored every empty water bottle they found. When a stuffed green rubbish bag drifted within reach, the men snared it, hauled it aboard and ripped open the plastic. Inside one bag, they found a wad of chewed gum and divided the almond-sized lump, each man feasting on the wealth of sensorial pleasures. Underneath a layer of sodden kitchen oil, they found riches: half a head of cabbage, some carrots and a quart of milk – half-rancid, but still they drank it. It was the first fresh food the two men had seen for a long time. They treated the soggy carrots with reverence.
When they had several days’ worth of backup food, and especially after they had caught and eaten a turtle, Córdoba and Alvarenga briefly found solace in the magnificent seascape. “We would talk about our mothers,” Alvarenga recalled. “And how badly we had behaved. We asked God to forgive us for being such bad sons. We imagined if we could hug them, give them a kiss. We promised to work harder so they would not have to work any more. But it was too late.”
After two months at sea, Alvarenga had become accustomed to capturing and eating birds and turtles, while Córdoba had begun a physical and mental decline. They were on the same boat but headed on different paths. Córdoba had been sick after eating raw seabirds and made a drastic decision: he began to refuse all food. He gripped a plastic water bottle in both hands but was losing the energy, and motivation, to put it up to his mouth. Alvarenga offered tiny chunks of bird meat, occasionally a bite of turtle. Córdoba clenched his mouth. Depression was shutting his body down.
The two men made a pact. If Córdoba survived, he would travel to El Salvador and visit Alvarenga’s mother and father. If Alvarenga made it out alive, he’d go back to Chiapas, Mexico, and find Córdoba’s devout mother who had remarried an evangelical preacher. “He asked me to tell his mother that he was sad he could not say goodbye and that she shouldn’t make any more tamales for him – they should let him go, that he had gone with God,” Alvarenga told me.
“I am dying, I am dying, I am almost gone,” Córdoba said one morning.
“Don’t think about that. Let’s take a nap,” Alvarenga replied as he lay alongside Córdoba.
“I am tired, I want water,” Córdoba moaned. His breath was rough. Alvarenga retrieved the water bottle and put it to Córdoba’s mouth, but he did not swallow. Instead he stretched out. His body shook in short convulsions. He groaned and his body tensed up. Alvarenga suddenly panicked. He screamed into Córdoba’s face, “Don’t leave me alone! You have to fight for life! What am I going to do here alone?”
To deal with losing his companion,
Alvarenga simply pretended he hadn’t died. ‘
How do you feel?’ he asked the corpse
Córdoba didn’t reply. Moments later he died with his eyes open.
“I propped him up to keep him out of the water. I was afraid a wave might wash him out of the boat,” Alvarenga told me. “I cried for hours.”
The next morning he stared at Córdoba in the bow of the boat. He asked the corpse, “How do you feel? How was your sleep?”
“I slept good, and you? Have you had breakfast?” Alvarenga answered his own questions aloud, as if he were Córdoba speaking from the afterlife. The easiest way to deal with losing his only companion was simply to pretend he hadn’t died.
Six days after Córdoba’s death, Alvarenga sat with the corpse on a moonless night, in full conversation, when, as if waking from a dream, he was suddenly shocked to find he was conversing with the dead. “First I washed his feet. His clothes were useful, so I stripped off a pair of shorts and a sweatshirt. I put that on – it was red, with little skull-and-crossbones – and then I dumped him in. And as I slid him into the water, I fainted.”
When he awoke just minutes later, Alvarenga was terrified. “What could I do alone? Without anyone to speak with?” he told me. “Why had he died and not me? I had invited him to fish. I blamed myself for his death.”
But his will to live and fear of suicide (his mother had assured him that those who kill themselves will never go to heaven) kept him searching for solutions and scouring the ocean’s surface for ships. Sunrise and sunset were best, as blurry shapes on the horizon were transformed into neat silhouettes and the sun was bearable. With his eyesight fine-tuned, Alvarenga could now identify a tiny speck on the horizon as a ship. As it approached, he would identify the type of vessel – usually a transpacific container ship – as it growled by. These sea barges ploughed the sea effortlessly, and with no visible crew or activity on deck, they were like drones at sea. Every sighting pumped Alvarenga with an energy boost that jolted him to wave, jump and flail for hours. About 20 separate container boats paraded across the horizon, yet the maddening ship-tease still excited him. Storms battered his small boat, but as he got farther out to sea, the storms seemed to become shorter, more manageable.
Alvarenga let his imagination run wild in order to keep sane. He imagined an alternative reality so believable that he could later say with total honesty that alone at sea he tasted the greatest meals of his life and experienced the most delicious sex. He was mastering the art of turning his solitude into a Fantasia-like world. He started his mornings with a long walk. “I would stroll back and forth on the boat and imagine that I was wandering the world. By doing this I could make myself believe that I was actually doing something. Not just sitting there, thinking about dying.” With this lively entourage of family, friends and lovers, Alvarenga insulated himself from bleak reality.
When he was a small boy, his grandfather had taught him how to keep track of time using the cycles of the moon. Now, alone in the open ocean, he was always clear as to how many months he had been adrift; he knew he had seen 15 lunar cycles while drifting through unknown territory. He was convinced his next destination was heaven.
He was whizzing along on a smooth current, when suddenly the sky filled with shore birds. Alvarenga stared. The muscles in his neck tightened. A tropical island emerged from the mist. A green Pacific atoll, a small hill surrounded by a kaleidoscope of turquoise waters.
Hallucinations didn’t last this long. Had his prayers finally been answered? Alvarenga’s racing mind imagined multiple disaster scenarios. He could blow off course. He could drift backward – it had happened before. He stared at the land as he tried to pick out details from the shore. It was a tiny island, no bigger than a football field, he calculated. It looked wild, without roads, cars or homes.
With his knife, he cut away the ragged line of buoys. It was a drastic move. In the open ocean, with no sea anchor, he could readily flip during even a moderate tropical storm. But Alvarenga could see the shoreline clearly and he gambled that speed was of greater importance than stability.
In an hour he had drifted near the island’s beach. Ten yards from shore, Alvarenga dove into the water, then paddled “like a turtle” until a large wave picked him up and tossed him high on the beach, like driftwood. As the wave pulled away, Alvarenga was left face down in the sand. “I held a handful of sand like it was a treasure,” he later told me.
The famished fisherman crawled naked through a carpet of sodden palm fronds, sharp coconut shells and tasty flowers. He was unable to stand for more than a few seconds. “I was totally destroyed and as skinny as a board,” he said. “The only thing left was my intestines and gut, plus skin and bones. My arms had no meat. My thighs were skinny and ugly.”
Although he didn’t know it, Alvarenga had washed ashore on Tile Islet, a small island that is part of the Ebon Atoll, on the southern tip of the 1,156 islands that make up the Republic of the Marshall Islands, one of the most remote spots on Earth. A boat leaving Ebon searching for land would either have to churn 4,000 miles north-east to hit Alaska or 2,500 miles south-west to Brisbane, Australia. Had Alvarenga missed Ebon, he would have drifted north of Australia, possibly running aground in Papua New Guinea, but more likely continuing another 3,000 miles towards the eastern coast of the Philippines.
As he stumbled through the undergrowth, he suddenly found himself standing across a small canal from the beach house of Emi Libokmeto and her husband Russel Laikidrik. “As I’m looking across, I see this white man there,” said Emi, who works husking and drying coconuts on the island. “He is yelling. He looks weak and hungry. My first thought was, this person swam here, he must have fallen off a ship.”
After tentatively approaching each other, Emi and Russel welcomed him into their home. Alvarenga drew a boat, a man and the shore. Then he gave up. How could he explain a 7,000-mile drift at sea with stick figures? His impatience simmered. He asked for medicine. He asked for a doctor. The native couple smiled and kindly shook their heads. “Even though we did not understand each other, I began to talk and talk,” Alvarenga told me. “The more I talked, the more we all roared with laughter. I am not sure why they were laughing. I was laughing at being saved.”
After a morning of caring for and feeding the castaway, Russel sailed across a lagoon to the main town and port on the island of Ebon to ask the mayor for help. Within hours a group, including police and a nurse, had come to rescue Alvarenga. They had to persuade him to get on a boat with them back to Ebon. While they nursed this wild-looking man back to health and tried to coax out details of his journey, a visiting anthropologist from Norway alerted the Marshall Islands Journal.
Written by Giff Johnson, the first story went out under the Agence France-Presse (AFP) banner on 31 January and outlined the remarkable contours of Alvarenga’s story. Reporters in Hawaii, Los Angeles and Australia scrambled to reach the island to interview this alleged castaway. The single phone line on Ebon became a battleground, as reporters tried to discover tantalising details. Alvarenga’s story had enough hard facts to make it plausible: the initial missing person report, the search-and-rescue operation, the correlation of his drift with known ocean currents, and the fact that he was extremely weak.
But a debate erupted online and in newsrooms around the world: was this the most remarkable survivor since Ernest Shackleton, or the biggest fraud since the Hitler diaries? Officials tracked down Alvarenga’s supervisor, who confirmed that the registration number of the boat he had washed up in was the same as the one that had left port on 17 November 2012, and vanished. Guardian reporter Jo Tuckman interviewed Mexican search-and-rescue official Jaime Marroquín, who detailed the desperate hunt for Alvarenga and Córdoba that followed. “The winds were high,” Marroquín said. “We had to stop the search flights after two days because of poor visibility.”
I began to investigate, talking to people up and down the coast of Mexico. I looked at medical records, studied maps, and spoke to survival experts, ranging from the US Coast Guard to the Navy Seals, as well as Ivan MacFadyen and Jason Lewis, two adventurers who have crossed that stretch of the Pacific. I spoke with oceanographers and commercial fishermen familiar with the area. Everyone confirmed that Alvarenga’s version of life at sea was in line with what they would expect. When he arrived at hospital in the Marshall Islands, he was debriefed by US embassy officials who described multiple scars on Alvarenga’s very damaged body. “He was out there for a long time,” the US ambassador said.
Meanwhile back in the Marshall Islands, Alvarenga’s medical condition steadily worsened. His feet and legs were swollen. The doctors suspected the tissues had been deprived of water for so long that they now soaked up everything. But after 11 days, doctors determined that Alvarenga’s health had stabilised enough for him to travel home to El Salvador, where he would be reunited with his family.
He was diagnosed with anaemia and doctors suspected his diet of raw turtles and raw birds had infected his liver with parasites. Alvarenga believed the parasites might rise up to his head and attack his brain. Deep sleep was impossible and he thought often of Córdoba’s death. It was not the same to be celebrating survival alone. As soon as he was strong enough, he travelled to Mexico to fulfil his promise and deliver a message to Córdoba’s mother, Ana Rosa. He sat with her for two hours, answering all her questions.
Life on land has not been straightforward: for months, Alvarenga was still in shock. He had developed a deep fear of not only the ocean, but even the sight of water. He slept with the lights on and needed constant company. Soon after coming ashore, he appointed a lawyer to handle the media requests that came in from all over the world. He later changed representation, and his former lawyer filed a lawsuit demanding a million-dollar payout for an alleged breach of contract.
It wasn’t until a year later, when the fog of confusion subsided and he scanned the maps of his drift across the Pacific Ocean, that Alvarenga began to fathom his extraordinary journey. For 438 days, he lived on the edge of sanity. “I suffered hunger, thirst and an extreme loneliness, and didn’t take my life,” Alvarenga says. “You only get one chance to live – so appreciate it.”
• This is an edited extract from 438 Days by Jonathan Franklin,
published by Macmillan at £16.99.
To order a copy for £12.99, go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846